25 December 2009

One year ago today...

One year ago today, I published the first slew of posts in Ampstertango. My intent was, and is, to share my experiences and perspectives of leading, so those learning to lead can:
I've been writing a lot this past quarter (of 2009) but have not been publishing. They are relevant thoughts written in a jumble of verse. I know what they mean, but read by another, it all amounts to rambling. Bear with me. The language will come. I promise.

It has been a wonderful year. Things are what we make of it, and next year should be great!

Thank you for your kindness,


26 November 2009

The hips don't lie

No, this post is not about incorporating "Cuban motion" into tango. Rather, its about what I learned in an eye opening lesson with Eva and Patricio.

I had asked to not be taught steps nor patterns. I wanted technique, technique, technique. In the span of a couple of hours, my brain ached from trying to absorb all of the corrective lessons. One lesson imparted upon me was so simple. So small. So clear. It's effect, remarkable—The weight is where the hips are.

Somewhere between clueless and passable...
As I slogged through the morass of learning tango, I was determined to (hopefully) be proficient someday. I thought I was progressing well, as I had a vast repertoire. I had become an accomplished "Step collector." Despite this, I felt that my dancing to be awkward and forced. It didn't dawn on me that my (pseudo) technique left me over/under-reaching and generally off balance. I was just compensating by muscling and counterbalancing.

I know that I had to do something and find better options.

After the first couple of years of dancing, I discovered the milonguero style of tango. In this paradigm, where you are weight forward, simplistic in delivery and connection is paramount. I had discovered what I was looking for (at the time).

I have been dancing "ala milonguero" for a couple of years now, and it has worked well for me thus far. My issue at hand is variety. Every now and then, I feel like I've hit a plateau and sometimes, I feel my dance to be repetitive. It's a good thing that in tango, we switch partners often. Being stuck in this paradigm with one partner would make things really boring.

I was once again looking for improvements. This time, I was looking to refinement of technique for the answer.

Enter Eva and Patricio...
They went about my conundrum very methodically. They had asked me to dance with Mrs. Ampster. Also, unknown to me, Patricio had observed me in a recent milonga and had some observations to share.

Their method was to watch, diagnose, correct, and improve. They did that, very well.

We had a slew of observations, recommendations, and corrective actions. The one adjustment they made that made a world of difference for me was where to place my weight.

Weight placement and hips...
Where you hold your weight determines your posture, which determines what you can (and cannot) do in tango. The adjustments were very slight, their effect huge.

Hips very slightly back, your upper body pitches forward, putting your weight slightly forward of the balls of your feet... Milonguero. Perfect for dancing tight.

Hips very slightly forward, you straighten up, putting your weight vertically above the balls of your feet... Salon. Versatile and opens up new movement possibilities.

The sliding hip adjustments provided a technique that allowed for a more dynamic and fluid dance. I found myself always in balance, eliminating the need to muscle and counter balance.

I hope now that I can impart a better tango experience to my partner... We'll see if it makes a difference.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Eva and Patricio have danced together since year 2001. Both of them started dancing at a very young age.
Eva started at age 7 as a ballet student. Patricio was 10 years old when he took his first folk dance class
They have more than 15 years of experience as professional dancers.

In the most recent years Eva and Patricio were starred in different important productions, the most notorious include Luis Bravo's Forever Tango Show; and ZAIA, the first show staged by "Cirque du Soleil" in Asia, at the Venetian Hotel in Macau. Eva and Patricio are the first and only Argentine Tango couple to be part of this world famous company.

At the moment Eva and Patricio are working in the creation of their new show, which is expected to be fully conceived and presented to the public in 2010. Meantime, the continue to share their art with people all over the world.

01 November 2009

Lead & follow in tango is not "black and white"

I have been in many a conversation before regarding who and what is "Leading and following." This is my opinion on the subject. It is agnostic cultural nuances. Rather, it is based on what I've heard, experienced, and observed.

Traditional Lead-follow dogma—The black and the white
The following is what I know, based on what had been initially taught to me.

–The leader (Active role)
  • The leader is in control of the dance and is the authority
  • The leader initiates the moves, pace, steps, tempo, etc.
  • The expectation is that whatever is led, is what is to be followed
–The follower (Passive role)
  • The follower is the person who follows whatever the leader initiates
  • The follower completes the initiated movement
  • The follower determines the embrace (close, open, etc.)

Did this paradigm work for me? Yes and No.

Yes, it worked for me when I was a tango beginner. It gave me a starting frame of mind to build on. I thought that it was an absolute rule and treated it as such. Not knowing any better, it worked for me.

No, it did not work for me when I learned how to "Dial in" to my partner. I started feeling the whole exercise to be forced and un-naturally rigid. The only one who was having fun, was me. Dancing with followers who were experienced enough to compensate for my shortcomings were the only ones where I felt the tanda to be (acceptably) good. Otherwise, it felt awkward.

Dynamic interactions—Black, white, and shades of grey

As I grew in my tango, I found that more and more, the rigid lead and follow model wasn't quite working out for me. The dance with my partner was less and less enjoyable each time. The more I learned, the more I realized that forced leading did not work for me, much more so for my partners.

–Dogmatic dynamism of lead and follow
I am not advocating the abandonment of the traditional lead-follow dogma. On the contrary, it is a standard that must be kept as it is one of the pillars of tango that makes it great, endearing, and enduring. It provides the roles that makes tango work.

That being said, what I've learned to do is to maintain the traditional standard and tweak it into something much like a real time loving relationship

  • Active and passive leading
"Active leading" is leading like you mean it. Lead with confident conviction with the expectation that you have put in the work to improve your technique.

What I have learned to apply is what I'd like to call, "Passive leading." It operates under the truth that all followers follow differently. When a movement is initiated, give time for the follow to finish. Feel where her weight's at. Feel where and when she tenses and relaxes her muscles. Feel how she feels the music. When the time is right, the leader FOLLOWS and compliments her movement to flow and make it look and feel right—Regardless if she's right or wrong, it doesn't matter. Leading has to be give-and-take and mutually rewarding.

  • Passive and active following
"Passive following" happens when the follower, follows the led movement... as led.

There will come a time when the follower will grow out of her beginner mold and develop a tango persona of her own. When that time comes, there is a very strong chance that she will engage in "Active following." She will hear the music and dance to it. She will move within your movement. She will embellish within the following. Her following is now dynamic and highly personal. When this time comes, one will know it and feel it. One must be prepared to adapt and assimilate her uniqueness into the overall leading and following dynamic.

= = = = = = = = = = =

This leading and following thing was simple in the beginning. However, as time and technique progress, so does the lead-follow relationship needs to evolve. It is necessary to make it happen for the follower... by leading well.

20 October 2009

How many steps does it take to be good at tango?

"How many steps does it take to be good at tango?" Was a question I asked myself when I first went down this road. Coming from a ballroom background, it made perfect sense to think this way. You see, in the ballroom world, dance progression is linear. You go from Bronze, to Silver, to Gold levels. It's like school. You're taught the steps first, then somewhere along the way, you get taught technique—with more payment and classes.

Confusion of thought & technique

With that preconceived notion, I was trying to learn under what (I thought) was proper. It amounted to learning all the steps I could memorize. Thinking and operating that way felt safe. It felt gratifying. I could count the steps I learned (or thought I did), and racked them up like trophies. I thought it was good value for what I was paying. I was, a "Step Collector."

Failure of delivery

Armed with a repertoire of steps, I braved the milonga floor. Frustration and disillusionment soon followed. If you remember, I had a post called, "End results—Her tango look." How my partner looked after the tanda was my guage on how I did. It was my report card. To my surprise, their faces had the look of "Relief" on them... relief that the tanda was over. I was (in effect) throwing them steps in my arsenal and putting them into a state of confusion, terror, bewilderment, etc. Whatever it was, it was unpleasant for my partners. I also thought that I got turned down way too much. I had to diagnose the problem and figure something out.

Step realizations

Despite my vast and advanced "Step" knowledge (ballroom paradigm) I don't think it was happening for my partners, thus neither for me. "What was I doing wrong?" I asked myself. I decided to watch the floor and the more experienced leaders. I watched those who were considered to be really good leads and wondered... Why?

It dawned on me that these admirable leads only used around 4 to 5 recognizable steps or patterns, perhaps and extra embellishment here or there. Other than that, that was it! It wasn't the amount of stuff they could do that mattered, it was HOW WELL, they did the few things they executed.

Shifting to focus on technique

Knowing of my folly, I embarked on a new paradigm of learning Argentine Tango. Concentrate on the technique, first and foremost. Instead of learning steps, I learned to DELIVER the steps. This was my "short list" of things I needed to work on:
  1. Find my center of balance: Be able to move without knocking my partner over, nor falling all over myself
  2. How to land my feet: Landing, shifting weight, stepping, pointing as smooth as possible
  3. Weight changes: How to lead by shifting weight, rather than muscling through a movement
  4. Leading with the "Core" (chest): Leading movements with the ONLY point of contact that matters... The chest
  5. Intention and commitment: I had to develop the confidence to make something happen. Anything tentative would have gotten lost
  6. Smoothness: Take all of the preceding, combine them, and try to make them work together as smooth as possible
This was my short list. There's so much stuff that went into them that they seemed like blurs.

I tried to make my tango as simple as possible—just done well. Which in my experience was even much more difficult than just learning steps.

So how many steps do you need to know? My answer is: Not many. Just deliver them very, very well.

30 September 2009

I write this blog...

I write this blog because this tango journey of mine has taught me so much life experiences that has brought so much value to my life. Great friends, lovely memories, an art form that I can be reasonably good at, food, wine, a rich social life, etc. All of them things to cherish and relish.

I write this blog to share my experiences from the dance floor. Because, tango is such a beautiful thing that maybe someone, somewhere, somehow will be encouraged to check this tango thing out... and get hooked.

I write this blog because tango is one of the most difficult and (simultaneously) beautiful hobbies I have ever indulged in, that I thought there should be a record of it somewhere.

I write this blog because, as a leader, my learning process has been long and hard. I want others to avoid the mistakes I've made.

I write this blog because I want to add value to a leader's skill-set. Not because I care for the leaders, but because I care for the beautiful followers who have to put up with us. The better we lead, the better the followers' tanda.

I write this blog dear friend, amigo, ami, tomodachi, tovarich, and kaibigan, so we can all learn from each other and spread the dance and the skill of this wonderful tango experience to others. We need more, and better leaders on the milonga floor. There is not enough of us.

I write this blog as a thank you for my heavenly tango partners who have allowed me the privilege of a tanda. Without you, I am nothing and "Tango" is just a word.

14 September 2009

"Thank you" for my very special tanguera

I was at my favorite milonga this weekend. As I briefly watched the floor, a thought just dawned on me...

I have had the pleasure of dancing the tango with you from the very first time you set foot on a milonga floor, up to the present day.

I have felt your progression through your first ever dance. I've felt your development as you went from teacher to teacher. I've felt your progression from my bearing your full weight, to you finding your own balance. I've felt you evolve from being a heavy stepper to walking as if you were on rollers. I've felt your brain tick as they you try to figure out what was being led, to seemingly mind-melding and responding with instantaneous responses. I've felt you go from a nervous, sometimes terrified hold to an embrace only a consummate tanguera can do. I've seen you go from a wallflower to someone I can no longer get a tanda with because someone else always cabeceo's you before I.

To you, I thank you. I thank you for hanging in there and suffering through the effort and time it takes to be good at tango. Thank you for being there. Thank you for growing. Thank you for being beautiful in soul and movement. Thank you for being a beautiful tanguera.

Thank you for still wanting to dance with me.

01 September 2009

End results—Her tango look

One of the best indications that a woman is having a wonderful time at tango is her facial expression during the tanda. Some look like they're in a trance, some wear a smile, some are in a sublime and heavenly place.

When women are having a NOT so good time, her expressions will be in stark contrast. She looks bewildered, shocked, confused, annoyed, and sometimes, upset. A myriad of emotions, other than happy. Instead of enjoying the tanda, she's trying to think, analyze, compensate, and figure out what the lead is trying to do.

She needs to FEEL you
Improving one's leading technique increases the chances of your partner's fulfillment during the time spent with you. The lead needs to be unmistakeably clear, concise, deliberate, and vibrant. You need to tell her (without words) what you want to happen.

She needs to understand what you're trying to do without vagueness and ambiguity. You shouldn't talk—She needs to feel you. You need to convey your thoughts, wishes, and intentions with the language of your body. At the same time maintaining balance, fluidity, floor craft, navigation, and musicality. She needs to feel that you care, are confident, and that you will protect her.

When a woman wears facial expressions of apprehension...

  • The tentative & hollow lead = Her frustrated look
This happens when the lead is not quite sure of what he wants to do. The leader's lack of confidence is manifested by fizzled leads. He starts something, becomes tentative, the movement fades. The follow snaps out of her concentration and wonders, "What's next?" This causes lapses on concentration on both sides. When the leader does decide to continue, he catches the follow thinking, and an awkward close embrace collision occurs. If this persists throughout the tanda, it becomes extremely frustrating for the follower.

The leader who does NOT use his core as the source of the lead, tends to generate the same frustrated look from her, as the lead dissipates, it causes her to wonder, "Where did you go?"
  • The no-technique-step lead = Her baffled (and panicked) look
This type of leader creates a mental and physical challenge for the follow. Especially, when the lead is obsessed with fancy footwork, patterns, and moves while lacking a fundamental understanding of basic technique. The follow gets knocked off her axis and muscled and/or forced into doing goofy stuff. It feels awkward, contrived, sometime dangerous.

"What are you doing?" is the question written on her face.
  • The band conductor lead = Her look of annoyance
Followers look annoyed with leaders who dance as if they're conducting a band. Their shoulders pop up and down with their arms pumping with the beat. They generate so much body noise that it obfuscates whatever it is they are trying to lead.
  • The wrestler lead = Her shocked look
Several followers have told me that this is one type of people they really don't care for. This happens when the lead heaves the woman around like a sack of potatoes. It hurts them, it shocks them, and is not pleasant by any means.
  • The creepy lead = Her terrified look
Several follows have asked me to help them avoid several people before. Because, according to them, "They're creepy."

Their practices of malevolence goes from stroking, roving hands, squeezing, licking, and a lot of other things which infuriates decent tango dancers.

Tango is intimate enough as it is, and these behaviors are simply inexcusable.

Trying to achieve her look of "Bliss"

I would like to kindly refer you (dear reader) to some of my older posts as reference. My blog is all about the leader's steady improvement down the path of making it "All about her."

Her sublime tango look
Pictures courtesy of the masterful eye of Paul Yang's Seattle Tango Magic 2009 album. Thank you Paul!

18 August 2009

My intensely silent tango

I wrote about taking breaks during the milongas to watch and appreciate other tango dancers. In doing so, I have made another epiphany—That I don't have to be like/look like anyone else—I can have a method and style of my own.

Really good dancers I've observed
  • Swooshers
I just call them swooshers because of the way they tango. They have large circular movements that "Swoosh" their way across the milonga floor. They go by in a blur of motion.

I once idolized these dancers because of the admirable agility of their delivery. It was like watching a show. I thought that it would be cool to gain the adulation of the audience. IT was a good ego stroker.

I have since gotten tired of this, as (IMHE) its a lot of motion. There is very good connection between the partners as they are concentrating on their motion. Its fun to watch when one expertly swooshes down the floor. It is however, a bit too much on the "Show" aspect of things.

  • Walkers
These are the dancers who tango very simply, yet elegantly. They move smoothly as if on rollers. There really is not much to see when they dance, other than the fact that their followers look like they're in a trance. To a beginner, these guys would look "Boring." The big difference here was that magical tango connection.

After watching intensely, I have come to appreciate this form of tango, and decided to make it my own.

My intensely silent tango

Everyone needs to dance their own tango. I call mine, an "Intensely silent tango." A tango that to the casual observer, is not much to watch. However, to my partner at the time, the lead is LOUD, clear, and vibrant. This, regardless of how simple the motion being led.

In order to do this, I have had to develop the following:

  • Control the power and delivery
I had to temper my movements to be confident and resolute with no tentativeness. No excessive/unnecessary motions. Do just enough to make the movement happen. No more no less.

  • Know where her feet are at all times
I have had to learn to lead her. Land her weight where I need her to be before I continue the next movement.

  • Wait for her
Wait for her to finish her step, movement, embellishment before continuing. Tango is a two way street, and sometimes my partner embellishes. Let her finish and and enjoy the moment.

  • Keep the chest consistent
Now more than ever, my lead has come from the chest, as it should be. I am always conscious of my tango posture. If the posture fails, the lead becomes weak.

  • Assisting the lead with Impulses (Micro leads)
I sometimes use muscular impulses to make my leading clearer for my follow. A muscular twitch here and there as appropriate. I utilize this most especially while dancing to complicated music and/or fast music.

I employ these techniques in the attempt to not only better my tango. But most importantly, to make the experience better for my partner.

08 August 2009

The first time I danced with a "Stranger"

When I first learned tango, it was with Mrs. Ampster. She was my permanent partner. We practiced together, we got good together, we progressed together. I was one of the fortunate ones to have had a partner who shares the same interest.

When we were still learning, we normally attended group classes where you shift partners. Ok, this was class, that was normal, I guess. This experience was my first exposure to different partners. We were all beginners learning in open embrace. No big deal.

After a few months, Mrs. Ampster and I started going to milongas. I'd like to think we were getting good. At least, Mrs. Ampster was. She was getting asked to dance a lot.

I on the other hand, I was to too terrified to ask anyone else. I think it was fear of rejection over anything else. My "fragile" ego would not survive a trouncing...

On one particularly bland milonga evening where dancing was sparse with the evening's ambience dead. A beautiful blond lady came up from behind me and asked...

"Would you like to dance with me?"

I gasped, turned around and said,

"I would love to."

What the hell am I doing!!??
This the monologue of my brain in turmoil that followed:

OMG, What the hell am I doing?

That's OK, we can make this work.

Here's my left arm. Oh good she took it

Here she comes!

Oh no, her arm just went over my shoulder, Gaaah! Close embrace!

I can't move.

These are NOT my wife's boobs!

Breathe, breathe, breeeeaaaatheee

My heart's racing. Relax, relaaaxxxx, breaaaaathe in annnnd ouuuut

When's the music going to start? Oh, it already began...

Now what!? I can feel HER breathing! She's alive!

Ok, calm down. Think of what your teacher taught you

Keep it simple, keep it simple... and, walk, walk, pause... pause... ocho aaaaand boleo

Hey, this works! Let's walk some more. Just walk, keep walking...

Listen to the music, syncopate, rhythm, follow the beat....

I'll stop talking to myself now...

That was the first time I had REALLY danced with a stranger. I was amazed at how well it worked. I kept it simple. After I had gotten over the initial shock, I was able to think clearly. After which, I had enough confidence in myself to just let go. It was one of the very first tango epiphanies I've had.

It was an eye opening, and magnificently liberating experience.

05 August 2009

Ampster's other blog

AmpsterTango is my blog exclusively for things tango. I recently added a couple of posts that related to Philippine history. Interesting, but out of context.

That being said, I created a new blog, "Ampster Ponders... Filipino style." This alternate blog will house my ruminations of living in this wonderful land called the area in and around Seattle from a Philippine point of view.

Oh, and that will be the venue where I post my "Foodie Porn."

Please come visit sometime——> Ampster Ponders


20 July 2009

Things that get in the way of a good tanda

My early years at tango was fraught with issues and erroneous assumptions on my part. Knowing them and their negative effects helped me be aware which aided my improvement.

The following are my visceral observations on why some tandas (in the past) didn't happen...

Distractions to a good tanda

  • The blow-by-blow sportscaster in my head
There are times when I just could not shut up the voice in my head. The sportscaster that gives every detail at every second. It gets in the way of good delivery because I could only think and concentrate on one thing at a time. Listening to the blow-by-blow account of my tango (good or bad) gets in the way of dancing tango.

Rectifying this was a matter of confidence building, brought about by (correct) practice. When I developed an acceptable level of self-confidence, then self trust happened, quieting that annoying voice. It took me about a year to get over this.

  • The over-analyzer in me
This happens when I put too much thought into the dance, seeking perfection in every step. In the desire to achieve perfection, the brain ponders and formulates
what, how, and where to place this foot, where to time this weight change, etc, etc, etc... ad nauseam. One is talking to one's self and giving instructions to the body, causing and brain to be confused. One side of the brain is thinking of what to do, and the other side is telling the body what to do—simultaneously. Doesn't work very well.

I overcame this by developing muscle memory. Simply put, you train yourself as proficiently as possible. This includes proper technique, execution, and (eventually) improvisation. Keep doing this until it becomes second nature. Then forget it. When you need it, the brain will remember and it just happens.

  • The pseudo show dancer
In the very beginning, I thought that being good at tango meant having the killer moves. It was that way in the ballroom world, and I had assumed (mistakenly) it was the same in tango. The result, at the very least, makes the recipient of the "moves" annoyed. At worst it makes the recipient feel (possibly) humiliated. It was a mistake born of ignorance.

I was (at one time) one of the people who can be hazards on a crowded milonga floor. In order to do show moves, you need space. Valuable space which is not always available in a crowded milonga.

Learning of appropriate protocols in a milonga opened my eyes to this and quit it. To my amazement, dancing simpler was much better.

  • Mirror watching and being self-conscious
While learning tango it was always a struggle to answer the question, "How do I look?" When you ask people, they won't tell you that you were bad. Chances are, they'll patronize you for fear of hurting your feelings.

To answer that nagging question, I would take advantage of looking at myself in the mirror whenever I had the chance and asses my form. It did nothing positive, as it causes me to concentrate on myself and not on my partner. I wasn't paying attention to her, causing my lead to be tentative, causing her to misread my lead. A flub resulted.

Correcting this was easy. I made a conscious effort to concentrate on my partner. After all, it is all about her.

  • The talker
If tango were not such a complicated dance, talking would be fine. However, tango being as intricate and as instinctually intense as it is, lends itself to being ruined by simple distractions—such as prattling away incessantly. I perpetrated this for a simple reason. I was trying to hide my lack of skill.

I realized this as a mistake when I danced with someone who did just as I. I found it distracting. It made my leading harder... much harder. If it made it difficult for me, then it must have made it difficult for my follow—Shut up I did.

A really good tanda
My objective for having a really good tanda would be one that was soulful–where my partner and I achieve that level of fervor that makes you WANT to dance with that person at that time. It's almost a trance-like state where each one is so in-tune with each other's nuances that the exchange of leading and following is as natural and purposeful as water rushing into a majestic waterfall. It is a magical experience where neither can explain why nor how the tandas was beautiful. It just was.

None of the beauty that is tango would be possible if the aforementioned distractions permeated. It takes a conscious effort to improve. Its hard to break old habits. But, in the case of tango, the return on investment via progressive improvement is well worth the effort.

14 July 2009

Let go and let it happen

Learning tango has been one of the most difficult learning endeavors I've undertaken. My post grad course of study was easier. It was however, not as fulfilling nor as fun. These are the experiences I've encountered during this long process. Some lessons I've applied to tango and other activities in my life.

Beginning to learn tango
Learning tango was a particularly painful learning process. When Mrs. Ampster and I first took up this beautifully intricate dance, we ended up in a lot of fights. We contested who was right, and who was wrong. We postulated on the creation and origins of tango. We practiced techniques which we weren't really sure of the proper execution.

If we weren't fighting we were struggling. My brain ached. My body was short-circuiting from muscle memory versus contravening synapse commands.

Too much training
The learning process lead to many peaks and troughs. We have learned so much, forgotten more, then re-learned again. The dance repertoire grew by leaps and bounds. Many an hour was spent perfecting and practicing balance, form, movement, placement, steps, patterns, figures, etc. etc. etc.

There is such a thing as too much training. In this case, the "Law of diminishing returns" apply. It states:

"... In a production system with fixed and variable inputs (say factory size and labor), beyond some point, each additional unit of the variable input yields smaller and smaller increases in output. Conversely, producing one more unit of output costs more and more in variable inputs."

What does this have to do with tango? In the context of social dancing in a milonga: The more stuff you learn, the less you get to use and apply on the milonga floor. How much of your learned repertoire can you (do you) actually, realistically use on the milonga floor? Master the basics.

If you watch the experienced dancers (who are worth watching), you'll find that if you observe often enough you'll find that what they do is repetitive. They've learned to do, what they do, really well. The variety happens with different partners at different tandas. The practice of switching partners makes the experience new and fresh.

Too many mind!
I heard that in a martial arts movie shot in Japan. It is a literal translation of what amounts to "Don't think too much."

The scene takes place when an apprentice is trying (in vain) to match his opponents. He fails, and gets beaten up every time. He gets up every time, then the result is the same. Failure, frustration, dejection, and shame. His master walks up and says "Too much mind..."

Heroic efforts can only go so much. Like the law of diminishing returns (above), this also happens to the mind. Too much thinking gets in the way of efficient execution... a.k.a. Analysis paralysis.

You need to be aware of the environment. Other dancers, the floor, tables, chairs, the music, musicality, line of dance, and your partner. That is enough to think about. Thinking about what you learned and how to do it will cause an overload and ruin the dance for you and your partner.

"Too many mind, upsets harmony."

Let go and let it happen
Knowing what you know, it is now time to stop thinking and analyzing! Forget it all.

Your training which concentrates on the physical aspects of tango has already been engrained into your sub-conscious—That if of course, if you've done your due diligence and learned your lessons well. It's called muscle memory. Your body will remember what you've practiced and perfected when called upon to do so. You don't have to vacillate over them.

Stop thinking about what to do. Remember? Too much mind!

Get on the floor, TRUST yourself. Let go of all your apprehensions. Let go of figuring out your steps. Let go of thinking of whose watching. Let go of your repertoire. Listen to the music, lead your partner well.

Let go and let it happen. You'd be surprised.

04 July 2009

What tango is to me

"Why do I tango?" Is a question I've asked myself many times.

I remember the first time I wanted to take up dancing was the late 70's. My parents (after all) were once folk dancers—That's how they met. I wanted to join my university's dance troupe. It didn't materialize because I was lazy. Also, I thought that dancing was less than manly. I thought school work was too much as it was and extra curricular activities would detract from my studies. My goal was to finish school, get a really good job and get rich... Period.

Fast forward three plus decades...

In the pursuit of my professional career, dancing never even came to mind. Trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up took a few years, and quite a few transformations and life changes. I've been to exotic places, and have mingled with exotic peoples. I've lived my life's adventures and my fantasies many, many times over. I got (mostly) what I wished for.

Having fared well through a drastic change in profession, I find myself in a radically different world—A civilian world.

Discovering a new world

Its amazing how a whole new world can be so close. So close that you are astonished to find that you actually live in it and not even know it.

  • Tango as a gateway and tour guide
Upon taking up tango, the simple act of finding one's way to and from milongas was an adventure. Finding restaurants, shops, and sundry places of interest along the way was an eye opening experience. It way like filling-in the places on bank map. I have discovered more of Seattle pursuing tango, than any other search expedition before it. It has built a holistic and rich view of the world around me.

  • Tango as a social networking mechanism
My best and favorite people in my life have been met through classes at first, then through milongas. These evolved into networks of tango-centric parties, identification and alignment of interests, histories, stories. It became a life enriching experience. These are friends not bonded together by politics, nor money, nor alliances, nor business. We are just friends because we are—Thanks to tango.

  • Tango as boost to self esteem
Outside of the drudgery of one's job, Tango is something (I think) I can do well, share, and believe in. It's something I enjoy, and am happy to do. The tango world, albeit fleeting, is a place where I can be, a "Somebody."

  • Tango as a reason to be healthy
The close contact inherent in tango forced me to reexamine my health. It has helped me quit smoking and modify and balance my diet as I don't want to stink. I've worked out regularly, to build strength and endurance. I find that I now stand up straighter. It has been one of the best motivational factors for improving ones health.

So far, the preceding are major points of what tango is to me. I find that the more I go, the more I know. Thus, the more I grow. It is a continuous adventure in learning and discovery.

30 June 2009

Things I like to lead in tango and why

During a recent post-milonga late night dinner with some friends, the lively topics went from comparisons of our world travels, adventures, and the best places to eat in Asia at 2 AM when you're drunk.

Inevitably, the conversation went to tango. The ladies discussed what they enjoyed as followers and why. That conversation inspired this post.

I like walking. Tango is after all, based on the walk. I have spent many an hour, in and out of milongas trying to get this right. My folly when I first began was to go with the mistaken notion that the road to good tango was paved with fancy steps. I was wrong.

My tango has gone through some major overhauls with slight modifications of the walk.

Phrasing my dance to the "Haaawoomp!"
One of my biggest challenges when I started dancing tango was interpreting tango music. As fortune would have it, Luciana Valle's was doing workshops in Seattle. Mrs. Ampster and I attended.

One of the biggest things I learned from her was the "Haaawoomp!" What she said was, listen to the tango music. Regardless of who was playing, if it was danceable music, the band will phrase it so that every 8 counts (or so), they would give a bang—a Haaawoomp! 1--2--3--4--5--6--7--8--Haaawoomp! In between the counts, one could embellish, double, triple step, all depending on the mood. For as long as your able to hit the Haaawoomp, you'll be OK.

It wasn't a perfect rule. It was more like a guideline. It did however, help me a lot in understanding how to interpret tango music. Which in turn, allowed me to learn enough for me to dance "In tune."

Thinking into the follower's feet
I feel that I have transcended from thinking about "What I'm doing," to thinking "What I want to happen." I see in my minds eye what needs to happen with the music. I lead it, then for some mystical machination of tango voodoo, her feet do what needed to happen... Magic!

Ochos for her and for me
Everyone does back ochos. I like doing forward ones. It gives her an opportunity to go forward for a change, and I can do my serpentine walks. (see below)

Leading backwards
I use giros and forward ochos to set up something I really like doing—Leading backwards. That is, I walk backwards and she walks forwards in syncopated rhythm. I think its cool.

Before I do this, I normally spot the space ahead of me several times to see if its clear. If there is anyone dancing erratically, or, if there are some non-line of dance cognizant people waiting to just cut into the line, I'll pass for a better opportunity later.

Giros and Ocho cortados
I like these because their a nice way of occupying time elegantly if space to move forward is curtailed.

Variations in timing and delivery
I try to keep my repertoire as simple as possible, and as small as possible. I don't rely on big flashy steps, patterns or figures. I vary the way I deliver my repertoire, based on the music. I lead an ocho fast, slow, in stages, in hesitations, in chops, to the dictates of the music... Its just an ocho, but it develops its own character based on the variation of delivery

17 June 2009

Hobby for the old and broken

1999 marked the end of an old century. It also marked a major turning point in my life. Due to several debilitating injuries, I could no longer serve in my beloved military. I was broken. No longer could I do feats of special stuff. No longer would I be able to handle specialized equipment that only a privileged few would ever know. No longer could I go on exotic adventures to far away places while keeping the homeland safe.

I became old before my time, and broken.

A new beginning...
All of my colorful past (and career) came to an abrupt end. I was at a loss. Loss of profession, loss of a life that I was so proud to be a part of. Loss of an identity. I literally had to remake myself from scratch.

Almost a year later, I had started a new career. There were lots of potential. With a lot of work, perseverance, and a clear view of what I wanted to achieve, I had once again found my niche.

All work and no play does indeed make one dull—and grim. After finding my professional self, I found that I didn't have a life. It was all work, work, and work. I was too serious, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Ampster.

I had developed hobbies to balance off my job. I was a martial artist once. Tried it, and didn't last very long as this thing called pain reminded me of my condition. I was a scale model builder, but didn't have the space, nor the place to display my finished works. I got back into playing video games. My butt got bigger as couch potato-ism insidiously crept in. I was once an armorer and took that up as a hobby. Fun, but prohibitively expensive at times. Can't sustain that all the time. I rode my motorcycle a lot. THAT was fun!

Just for me, me, and me...
In all of the hobbies I partook in and tried, one fact became obvious to myself. It was all, just for me, and all about me. My hobbies were just mine. In my search for me, I had left Mrs. Ampster out of the picture. This wasn't right. I wanted to do something with her. Something she would enjoy as much as I did. I did not want her to get into a hobby just to accommodate me. It would have been noble of her, but I want something for us.

Behold, ballroom...
I discovered this thing called a dvd rental store. Being a huge broadway fan, my wife and I enjoyed watching videos of musical theater. One day, I rented "Shall We Dance?" Great! I had to see the original Japanese version, "Shall we dansu? This was followed by "Strictly Ballroom." I was on to something. I watched more dance shows, read a lot about dance. I woke up one day, and I asked Mrs. Ampster, "Honey, want to take ballroom lessons with me?" Guess what her answer was...

We did our ballroom thing and one dance stood out—The tango. We were specialists. Then we saw Forever Tango. As it turns out, Ballroom tango is very, very, very different from Argentine tango. What we were proficient at, was not the dance we wanted. We had wasted so much time. Besides, the competitive ballroom world is a crazy world which neither of us wanted to be in. We had to move on.

We took up Argentine tango in Seattle. We got started. Took lessons, went to milongas, and figured it out. We got proficient. We had the same teachers and developed different flavors of tango. Bizarre, but, works great together. It's as if we learned from different teachers... But I digress.

On a more personal note, I've found something I can be good at. An art form that I have a distinctive signature in. Its a vernacular that I feel special knowing. Its something that I can make people happy with, one partner at a time. Its a hobby that doesn't involve danger, combat, serious physical injury, pain, trauma, nor booming things.

I've found something to do that totally makes up for being old and broken. Most of all, its a hobby I can share with my beloved Mrs. Ampster.

12 June 2009

Getting off my tango motorcycle

Seattle, WA is a beautiful, small, yet sophisticated city with the best of most everything.

Its tango community emulates that model and has been blessed with dedicated tango people who have established several new milongas this last year. You can literally go to a practica, or a milonga every day of the week.

I had lots of choices, and I availed of the opportunity whenever I could. Eventually, even a good thing can be too much. My beloved Mrs. Ampster got a little burned out and took a tango sabbatical. That's a good thing as everyone needs to hit the reset button every once in a while. Myself on the other hand, had a different effect...

Splitting the population
Seattle is a hotbed of fanatical, dedicated, and beautiful tango dancers, both milonguero and nuevo alike. However, it has an Achilles heel—The population is not particularly big. Considering that it really takes time to develop good tango dancers, quality growth of the community can be slow.

With this scenario, the laws of supply and demand take over. You have the Seattle tango people diversifying the milongas they go to, thus splitting the population. On one hand, it gives impetus for the community to build and mentor new tango dancers to keep everything going. On the other, without any community growth, some milongas will have to fold. Only time will tell.

Getting off the motorcycle
The effect on myself by this conundrum is that I suddenly find my regular partners missing. In the past, I literally would dance almost every tanda for the duration of the milonga—There are so many friends to dance with. With the splitting of the population, regular partner numbers are diminished. However, it is not particularly a bad thing as I also see new faces. I explore new partners regardless of skill level. It's a great exercise in diversification.

I tried to diversify with my newly found tango friends at my usual pace. It was like riding a motorcycle at speed through mountain passes. There was so much going on all at once, while trying to be smooth and not crash. It's intense. It's furious. It went on for the duration of the tanda—For a few months.

I got tired eventually, and decided to get off my tango motorcycle for a while. I didn't dance as much as I did. The experience was like getting off my motorcycle and enjoy walking through the mountain meadow to enjoy the breeze and the flowers. Things were no longer passing by at a high speed blur.

Appreciating the tango of others
I sit and watch the dancers that pass in front of me. I scrutinize their embrace. I watch as she closes her eyes, feeling the warmth of the embrace and sensing the lead. They move fluidly. They move beautifully. I see some leads do things that are so simple, yet magnificent. I see women extend their legs in long elegant lines as they walk back. I see some women's hand raise as a gesture of feeling the music and the dance.

I watch leaders move in syncopated rhythm. I watch them cast the tango spell on their willing partners. I see different placements for the leaders left arm. Some high, some head level, some low. One even did the scorpion looking high looped arm thing—bizarre. All worked for their purpose and style.

In one tanda, I even saw my own tango development... All at once. There were dancers that represented my own tango evolution.

There were awkward beginners trying out their newly memorized steps–I was once one of them. There was the guy who who tries to teach a hapless newbie and block traffic in the fast lane–I was once this loathsome creature. There was the flashy nuevo guy who tried to do all his fancy stuff–Me at one time. There was the salonisti who danced in a "V" embrace and the milonguero who danced squarely in full contact with their partner–I too have gone these routes. Fascinating!

Its nice getting off my tango motorcycle and savoring the sights of the milonga for a change. Someday, I'll ride at full speed again—maybe.

P.S. That's really me on my motorcycle

21 May 2009

Dialing in...

"Dialing in" An old military term used to denote changing one's settings to adapt to unique and shifting environments enabling one to hit the target. 

One of THE most difficult things I have ever had to learn to do in tango is to "Dial in" my partner. It was an excruciating exercise in patience and adaptation. I pushed through that because of my target... A good tanda, and my tango partner's joy.

Nothing but steps...
When I began learning tango, I was under the impression that it was all about steps and figures. A common beginner's mistake. I had to be able to do a gancho, a sacada, a giro, a molinete, etc, etc, etc. I also expected that my partners would also know a gancho, a sacada, a giro, a molinete, etc, etc, etc.

I studied long and hard, and eventually I could perform my steps and figures well. I thought I had it. I honestly thought (at the time) that if I collected enough good step patterns, I would be fine. I took to the milonga floor and imposed... No, INFLICTED this on unsuspecting partners. In my zeal to perfect my steps, I sometimes ended up teaching them to my partner... my sincerest apologies. I did not realize (then), that this was rude in tango.

Starting to lead...
There was an event that made me realize my step collecting folly. My first teacher and I were watching someone someone on the dance floor. He could barely dance, and he was trying to teach a hapless beginner steps. It looked bad, very bad. My teacher told me,

"Look at J... It just upsets me when someone tries to teach something he can't even do himself." 

My head blew up after hearing this, thinking—I was just like that! Ewe! I need to figure things out. My epiphany was this: I told myself that steps are fine, ONLY if I could lead them well. If I can't, I won't.

I learned to lead. I learned to dance with simplicity. I was on my way down a new path. Much to my amazement, making the decision was the easy part.

Leading is not easy. Women dance differently...
Learning to lead was not the defining moment in my tango. It was the beginning of many, many, many headaches to come. 

The source of my consternation... Women dance differently—Each and everyone of them! Gaaaah! I discovered that having learned how to lead, I only knew how to lead ONE way. My style of leading only worked for one type of follow. That made one out of ten dances good. The rest, I would not even call good. I had to figure something out if I wanted to have decent dances.

Lessons from the past: Dialing in...
Being an old and broken veteran, it was once my job to hit distant targets under varying environmental and atmospheric conditions. In order to compensate for variances, I was trained in the very mental exercise of "Dialing in." 

You become aware of your environment and the elements around you and your objective. You know your strengths, capabilities, and limitations. You make your assessments and compensate by (literally) "Dialing in" to adjust your settings. Done right, your target is easily achieved. Done improperly (or ineptly), you waste a good opportunity.

Becoming aware, tweaking the dials...
When the dance starts, we go into an embrace—the abrazo. I feel my partner's breathing rhythm. I feel her level of tension, or relaxation. Where does she hold her weight?

I immerse myself in the music. I feel it. I feel her. I move off, one foot... then the next. I feel her move with me. The dialing in begins.

Does she go long, or go short? Do her steps feel choppy or smooth? Does she feel heavy or light? Does she follow what's led, or does she misread the lead?

Whatever she does, I adapt, and dial in my settings for my lead to match her level of follow. That way, regardless of what and how she follows, by dialing in, I can try to make everything flow into that magic called tango.

17 May 2009

Seattle's (finest) tango bloggers

On the evening of May 16, 2009, we had a small party. On hand were dear friends, good food, good wine, and a little dancing.

The air was permeated by a bond of friendship and love that was created by this beautiful this thing called, "Tango."

08 May 2009

With my sincerest apologies...

Knowing what I know now in tango, I would like to address a few things to a few ladies. I hope that after this, someone will still want to tango with me...

To the lady whom I stepped on, kicked, and knocked knees with,
I apologize. When I was starting out, I didn't and couldn't lead with the right posture, nor with the right walk. I've since corrected those errors and I hope to dance with you again sometime.

To the lady whom I nearly squeezed to death,
I apologize. At the time, I didn't know the difference between a tango embrace—The abrazo, and a Jiujitsu submission hold. I know better now, and when we dance again, I promise to envelop you in a warm loving embrace, and not a bear hug.

To the lady whom I left breathless in less than a tanda,
I apologize. As a beginner, I was impatient, and thought everyone was slow. I was wrong. The next time we dance, I'll dance to the speed of the crowd in harmonious syncopation with you. I promise to not bulldoze right through you.

To the lady whom I led with my flailing arms,
I apologize. I didn't know how to lead yet, so I used your right arm like a boat rudder. I know how to lead now, so when we dance again, I'll present my hand for you to rest yours on. I promise not to wrench it out from its socket.

To the lady whom I bounced around the floor with,
I apologize. It was a remnant of my ballroom days. Rise and fall was the norm. I'm learning to be smooth and walk like I'm on rollers. Next time we dance, I'll try to make it as smooth as possible, and not make you sea-sick from all that bobbing up and down.

To the lady whom I led with a very tentative lead,
I apologize. Starting out, I really didn't know what to do. I assumed that if I give a signal, you'd do a boleo, or a gancho, or a giro, or a molinete... I didn't know that I was supposed to move you—lead you. I think I've it figured out now, so next time, you don't need to guess what I'm trying to do, because you'll be able to feel my lead.

To the lady I tried to teach on the dance floor,
I apologize. I was new. I tried to hide my incompetence by looking smart and teaching you a step that I myself could not lead. It must have been embarrassing or humiliating. In any case, it's not good. I know better now, and when we meet again on the dance floor, things will just happen.

To the lady I heaved around like a sack of potatoes,
I apologize. I confused finesse with brute force. I've since learned to transmit my motion through you very subtly and clearly. As we meet again, we will flow like water.

To the lady I danced with out of tune,
I apologize. At the time interpreting music was not my forté... Ok, I had no clue. I thought that as long as I could do the steps, I'd be fine. I have since learned to read the music, syncopate, dance on time and with rhythm. When we meet, I may not be fancy, but I'll be in tune.

To any one else I have forgotten... I'm sure I have perpetrated a lot more tango malfeasance than what I even remember and/or know... I say to you, "I apologize."

To make amends, I shall do my all to make our next tango experience, a beautiful one.

P.S. I don't stink. So, I won't be apologizing for that. ;-)

29 April 2009

Beautiful at any level

One of my most inspirational tango moments happened to me a few years ago. It was for me, a defining moment...

The elderly lady...
At the time, I did not consider myself good a dancer. But, then again, I wasn't a raw beginner either. I was at my usual milonga and It was still early so attendance was light. I danced as best I could while trying to figure out how to improve my leading skills. Dancing with different partners was my strategy before the good dancers came. It was fun and I think I was starting to really understand this "leading" thing.

The night wore on and the milonga was now full of wonderful dancers. Sitting across the room was a very dignified looking elderly lady intently watching the floor with a look of awe. I wondered who she was, as I had never seen her before... I kept dancing.

A few tandas had passed, and decided to take a break and sit out the current tanda (it was a milonga and I was horrible). I noticed the very dignified elderly lady once again. She seemed happy with a wispy smile on her face as she watched. The cortina came. Deciding to take the chance and ask her to dance, I stood up. I stared her way as I was trying to make a cabecéo. No luck. Doing it the old fashioned way, I walked up to her and asked. She smiled and accepted.

The tanda...
I stood up straight, waiting for her. She approached and I offered my left hand. She took it with grace. I opened my right arm, inviting her for an embrace. She accepted, and settled in. My right arm rested across her back. She nestled her cheek on mine and we settled into a comfortable close embrace, safe and warm.

I listened to the music as the strains of the bandoneon permeated the air. I relaxed, took a breath, then moved. She moved with me, albeit a tad awkwardly. I could tell that she had a dance background (perhaps ballroom) but not Argentine tango (at least, not yet).

I tried to lead a back ocho, and she does a rearward fan. I tried to lead a front ocho, then suddenly four perfect latin/rhythm forward fans in succession... Yup! Ballroom. I went with it, letting her finish, then led something as best I could to make it look and feel seamless. Her posture was a bit off with a tendency to lean backwards a bit with squared shoulders (definitely ballroom). I compensated by keeping it simple enough that flow and syncopation could be maintained even if the following was not stellar. The tanda continued, and it worked. What was important to me was that the connection was great, and it was.

*An old military technique (sic): To change your settings to compensate for the current situation*

I had to "dial her in." She had the spirit, the heart, the connection, but not necessarily the technique... at least, not tango technique. It was an exercise in reaction and adaptation. I led and she answered—not quite the answer I was looking for, but no matter. I reacted to make it flow and adapted so that it all blends into one motion after motion. So what if some of what she was doing wasn't a tango? Tango is about how it feels and I tried to make it feel good.

The end of the tanda...
I thanked my lady friend, and escorted her to her bench. I apologized for the flubs I did. She turned to me and smiled. She said "Thank you," and took her leave.

I really did make a few mistakes, and I tried to correct them as smoothly as I could. I let it go, and chalked it up as a learning experience. I made my way to the water fountain. I thirst.

The water fountain was by the exit door. I took a couple of cups and filled them with water. It was a warm night and I stepped outside for some fresh air.

I sipped my water, savoring its coolness. It was a pleasant contrast to the warm night air. I stared blankly at the road and watched the passing cars to the tango tunes of the milonga.

Feeling a gentle tap on my shoulder, I turned and discovered my elderly lady friend smiling at me. She said,

"Thank you. You were my best dance of the evening and I can go home now."

I smiled and nodded in gratitude. She turned and started walking away. After a few steps, she turned to me and said...

"You made me feel beautiful this evening."

She smiled. Then, turned away, went down the stairs to her car and drove off. Rounding the corner, I watched her disappear.

To my dear elderly lady friend, whom I had never seen before, nor since...
You made me feel a heartfelt warmth that evening. My soul soared at the thought that I made someone happy. Because of you, my sweet lady, I have promised myself that from then on, I will make every effort for any and all my tango partners (regardless of skill level) to feel beautiful.

Thank you.

08 April 2009

The intricacy of simplicity

In my post entitled, "Meanderings through tango music," I talked about my transition of musical preferences from nuevo style tango music to traditional tango renditions. Along with that change in taste in music, came a change in my dance style. The evolution of my tango style went from preferring dancing in open embrace to eventually concentrating on the close embrace exclusively.

This is a narrative of that journey...

The first lessons...
Coming from a ballroom background, I was comfortable with a tango open embrace. A ballroom close embrace is an open embrace in tango. That was an easy enough adaptation. Overlay that with the 8-count basic, and step variations, I thought I was golden. Little did I know that this was just my (Sony Newman) teacher's way of easing students in.

It got complicated really fast. Along with the steps, my teacher incorporated basic balancing and walking exercises that were in reality, exercises in technique —I ignored them thinking that they were only there to occupy time. He was a perfectionist. At 75 (at the time) , he was quite feisty. His lessons frustrated me and made my brain ache.

I eventually caught up with the learning curve and became proficient in open embrace tango (so I thought). I could do fancy stuff like leading over-extended front ochos, boleos, sacadas, calecitas, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I had a large répertoire of steps. I was ready to go to a milonga!

The first milongas...
Like many an arrogant newbie before me, I made a very painful and humbling self-discovery... A good student in tango class, does not a good tango dancer make. I knew all the steps, but I had the wrong frame of mind. I had the show dancer mentality. I was dancing for the adulation of the audience.

Up until then, I never really appreciated the music. I needed percussion, so I looked for nuevo music. That being said, the result was that I danced out of tune—My musicality sucked. Knowing this, I tried to get better, and struggled through the frustration and ill-perceived embarrassment. This was turning into a serious trampling to one's ego. In any case, I still loved it so much that I kept going.

I got incrementally better. I got smoother and smarter. I got more coordinated and less klutzy. Things were starting to come along. I was comfortable.

One night, my wife and I decided to investigate a different milonga and a funny thing happened that night. I asked a lady to dance and she was gracious enough to oblige me. Much to my surprise, her arm went all the way around my shoulder... Oh my! *GASP* I was enveloped in a close embrace!

I didn't know what to do and tried to control my panic and keep my composure. I couldn't move and my "stuff" was not going to work—No space. I walked the tanda and my poor partner suffered through my gawkiness.

So much for being ready. I sat out the night and watched. It turns out that the tango place we went to was a predominantly milonguero place. I saw dancers like these on my tango videos... The people I fast forwarded through because I thought they were boring.

My perspectives had suddenly and abruptly changed. I was terrified, but found it nice at the same time.

A new outlook about the tango embrace...
I told my teacher about my close embrace experience–He chuckled and explained that now, I was ready to try close embrace. I asked why he didn't teach that in the first place?

He wanted his students to experience the whole gamut of tango. His theory was that if one can dance in the open, then, one can dance in close. Simply reduce the size of what was taught, to an eighth of what it was. The tricky part is to now lead with only one's core and nothing more. He continues that once one is able to find the right mix of comfort level + expertise, one gravitates to only a few basic steps to do really, really well and just revisit the rest when the right partner comes along.

According to him, when I get to this point, is about the time I would realize that I don't need to take classes from him anymore. He smiled. He was right. I took it to heart, and eventually became acceptably competent tango dancer.

A very visceral connection...
The main difference between dancing open and close embrace was the level of connection. Dancing in the open was fun, fancy, and vigorous. Dancing in close embrace was intimate, internal, and a very visceral experience.

IMHE, when I was dancing in the open, I was concentrating on cool moves and leading them well. I was, a bit self absorbed, and I did it (really) to look good.

When I concentrated on dancing in close embrace, a different kind of magic happens. I am now dancing FOR my partner. She is the only one that matters during the tanda, I dance for her. It's all about her.

This was the one feeling I found to be so delightful. I knew I was doing a good thing because every now and then, I made someone truly happy, even for but a fleeting moment of a tanda. Every now and then, I could make the magic work.

Looks can be deceiving...
When I began tango a few years ago, I contrasted the two dichotomies. I reveled at the cool nuevo generation of tangueros. I thought the stuff that they did was marvelous. On the other hand, I glazed over the viejo. I thought they were slow, boring, and geriatric. What they did looked boring because they were just walking. "Anyone can do that," I said to myself.

When I experienced and learned close embrace, I realized that my previous opinion was so wrong. It is actually harder (for me) to dance close embrace because it is internal. It's all about the way it felt and not the way it looked. It requires more concentration. It requires more tuning into your partner. Leading used subtle muscular impulses, and used the whole body to transmit your lead messages to one's partner, almost like dance osmosis. Bizarre, beautiful.

The old cliché "looks can be deceiving," applies. When one dances in close embrace, there is so much going on between the partners. Only the acutely trained can see this interaction. It is in essence, a private conversation expressed in dance, using the tango dialect.

All of these complexities and nuances interact to produce an art form so intricate, yet so beautifully simple.

25 March 2009

My meanderings through tango music

My appreciation for tango music went through a long evolutionary process. My first preference was nuevo style music. Fast forward few years to where I am now, I listen to none but traditional tango music. Here's how that metamorphosis went...

In the beginning...
My wife and I were at one time, avid ballroom dancers and were poised to enter the competitive ballroom scene. As fate would have it, we did not bow to that madness (that's another story). We discovered tango and it became our specialty. We didn't know (at the time) that there were different types of tango! In any case, we (finally) discovered Argentine Tango and never looked back.

My view of tango music was shaped by American Ballroom Tango. The premise—In order for one to dance well, one needs to follow the beat. In ballroom tango, the musical arrangements are written to pound this into a distinctive 4/4 time march-like cadence.

Ballroom tango music

First exposure to "real" Argentine tango music...
Crossing over from ballroom, my only "real" knowledge of tango music came from the (2004) movie "Shall we dance," a remake of the original 1996 Japanese movie of the same title.
My first idea of "real" tango music (Gotan Project)

My brain was filled with a load of assumptions and presumptions on how this dance should be. I was under the misguided belief of transposing my previous dance experience and apply it to tango. I thought that this was the fastest way to be good at tango. It was (in hind sight) quite arrogant of me.

I was looking for music that had a constant, discernible, and structured beat. I was looking for music like salsa, or cha-cha. I assumed that, since Argentina was in latin America, ergo, it should be like any other latin rhythm—right? I wanted music that when you just listened to the beat, you knew what it was, and you knew what step to pick and use. Music that didn't change rhythm... just like ballroom, salsa, and cha-cha.

First frenzy...
I discovered Gotan project. Hey, it's tango music. Good enough to be in a movie I liked, its good enough for me. I get this kind of music. Good beat, modern, sleek, cool. I spent time collecting music from Otros Aires, Narcotango, Gotan Project, Bajofondo Tango Club... All the "cool" stuff. I started collecting CITA DVD's. Gotta watch the nuevo masters. I liked the moves. I was impressed and wanted to do them... Just like ballroom. It was all about the flashy-cool moves.

At this point in time, I DID NOT KNOW HOW TO DANCE Argentine tango, yet. I just thought I could do anything. I was still in "research" mode, and basing my assumptions on what I knew.

Beginning tango lessons, a rude awakening...
I enrolled with my first real Argentine tango teacher. He was very good (as a first teacher). He was very strict. He showed my technical inadequacies in no uncertain terms. The music he used used to teach his class... Old scratchy pre-World War II sounding stuff. I couldn't stand it! Why, oh why did this old man insist on his old music? Nostalgia? Ugh!

It was bad enough that my brain ached after the class trying to learn this tango thing. It didn't help that my ego got trampled every single time. All of this while the horrible old scratchy music grated at me constantly. I didn't get this music. Why didn't they use a drum? Why did it change rhythm and tempo several times in one song. It was confusing to me. I couldn't read it. Oh, did I mention it was scratchy?

A funny thing happened. I learned how to dance tango...
I had to unlearn everything I knew. I started re-learning with an open mind. Working through my frustrations, I patiently persisted. After about a year or so, my teacher told me that in the end, despite all the steps that he taught, I had to make the dance, my own. Take what he taught, string them together and make it into something distinctly mine. He said, "When you can make it flow WITH A PARTNER, regardless of how good or bad she is and make it an experience, then you know you can tango."

This resounded in my brain like a cathedral bell. The connection, the syncopated motion combined in a magical way. Suddenly, the intricacy of the old, traditional music became meaningful. I got it—I GOT IT!

The nuevo style stuff was now BORING! It did not have the character of the traditional music. It might as well be salsa or cha-cha. If you sat there and just listened, a whole evening would go by and there would be one steady cadence... It limited my musicality to the song, because I found that you were tied to a consistent rhythm.

With the traditional music, you danced to the down beat of the melody. I slowed when it slowed, I sped up when it sped up. Hesitations and pauses became intrinsic parts of my dance. I danced with the music and not to the music. It has become a zen-like experience with a partner. It's always a new experience—every time.

And so, for the last few years, my iPod and my music listening has since been dominated by traditional tango music. Of course, I still listen to nuevo stuff... But I don't dance to it anymore.

Juan D' Arienzo